The AFC North has been an extremely fun division to watch over the years. They’ve sent two teams to the playoffs in every season dating back to 2008 (except for 2013). They’ve been Super Bowl representatives in three seasons since 2008, with the Steelers winning in 2008 (losing in 2010) and the Ravens in 2012. The division also has more stability at the head coaching position than arguably any other division. The Bengals’ Marvin Lewis has been coach since 2003, and the Ravens (John Harbaugh) and Steelers (Mike Tomlin) haven’t had a coaching change since their respective leaders joined in 2008. The Browns, however, have a new regime in place with Hue Jackson entering his first year as head coach. With all that said, let’s take a closer look at each team heading into the 2016 season.
Cincinnati Bengals (12-4 in 2015)
The Bengals had yet another promising regular season fall face-first in the first round of the playoffs, a story that’s been repeated for five straight years now. Last season, however, they were without starting QB Andy Dalton in their Wild Card loss to their biggest division-rival opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals have had four straight 10-win or better seasons, but haven’t won a single playoff game with Andy Dalton or Marvin Lewis. 2015 seemed to be the season they’d finally win one considering Dalton took the biggest step of his career; he threw 28 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He looked ready to finally win a big game before going down for the season with a thumb injury.
Dalton will seemingly have less offensive weapons to throw to this season, at least to start the year. Wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones left; Tyler Eifert is shaky to start the season while recovering from ankle surgery; and Brandon LaFell, who came over from New England, is also going to miss some time due to injury. They still have an elite receiver in AJ Green and two formidable running backs in Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, and their offense should still be able to produce big numbers if rookie Tyler Boyd lives up to the hype.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals were great last season. They gave up the second-least amount of points to their opponents in 2015. They were a big part of the Bengals +11 turnover differential, which was the third-best in the league. But Reggie Nelson, who led the team and league in interceptions with eight, left and is playing in Oakland, and rookie William Jackson III is already out for the year with a torn pec. The secondary will still have a lot of help thanks to the Bengals’ monstrous defensive line – Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins combined for 24.5 sacks last year, and they will cause havoc all season long.
I expect the Bengals to struggle early, but come on strong and return to the playoffs yet again under Marvin Lewis. This time, though, if Lewis doesn’t win a playoff game, I expect him to finally be replaced in Cinci.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6 in 2015)
The Steelers are one of my favorite teams heading into 2016. They lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last year to the defending champs, the Denver Broncos, and probably only because Antonio Brown was out with a concussion suffered in the Wild Card matchup with the Bengals. Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell both missed significant time, and this offense was still fourth in the league in points scored and third in yards recorded; simply put, they’re straight up explosive on that side of the ball.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Steelers season may be determined. They’re a young group who let up the 21st-most yards in the league last season, which speaks most to their inexperienced secondary. They addressed that secondary in the first two rounds of the 2015 draft by selecting Artie Burns and Sean Davis, two guys they hope can hold down the fort while their front-7 does all the dirty work.
- Heyward Cameron, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree
- Ryan Shazier, James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Lawrence Timmons
Those are some promising names on the front-7, and a big reason why the Steelers had 28 takeaways (third in the league). I expect them to stay healthier this season, and once Bell comes back from his presumed four-game suspension, the sky’s the limit for this offense. I expect the defense to play a lot better, and the Steelers should win this division comfortably.
Note: Legendary Steelers’ TE Heath Miller retired, leaving Big Ben with little options for a security blanket. The Steelers picked up Ladarius Green to fill the role, but reports say he could retire due to recurring headaches.
Baltimore Ravens (5-11 in 2015)
The Ravens have arguably the best coach in the division under John Harbaugh. His team has gone to the playoffs in six of his eight seasons and they won the Super Bowl in 2012. After a terrible season in which they lost nine games by a touchdown or less, it would be foolish to sleep on Harbaugh’s team.
The Ravens were without Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs for a lot of 2015, arguably their two most important players on both sides of the ball. They had only 14 takeaways, but 28 turnovers, a ratio that landed them 31st in the league in turnover differential.
2016 should be a different story with Flacco, Suggs and even Steve Smith set to return from injury-plagued seasons. The Ravens offensive line is still elite, and the competition for carries in the backfield is one of the most interesting headlines of training camp. They’re going to need to control the clock and run down team’s throats for success, because their receiving corps raising questions all around the board.
- Steve Smith is returning from a “double-ruptured” achilles injury and is 37 years old.
- Mike Wallace, obtained in free agency, has never quite lived up to expectations since leaving Pittsburgh early in his career.
- Breshad Perriman, a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, hasn’t played a snap in the NFL and is probably going to start 2016 on the reserve/PUP list.
- That leaves Kamar Aiken and Michael Campanaro to pick up the slack.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens have a promising front-7 and a secondary that should be better after getting S Eric Weddle in the offseason. But my concern here is age. Suggs and Dumervil sacked the QB 29 times in 2014, but they’re 33 and 32 years old, and Suggs is coming off a big injury. Weddle will help the secondary, but he’s 31 and probably passed his prime. If CJ Mosley (24) and Brandon Williams (23) can turn a corner, then this defense can be good.
I just don’t see the Ravens having enough offensive weaponry to keep up in a stacked division. But again, I’ll probably look back and call myself a fool for sleeping on Harbaugh’s team.
Cleveland Browns (3-13 in 2015)
The Browns are going to be a fun team to watch on offense this season. I didn’t say they’d be good, but certainly fun. Hue Jackson, formerly the Bengals’ offensive coordinator, will have a lot to work with on offense. Robert Griffin III (RG3) finally gets his fresh start, and he’s starting the season with a bang after separating with his wife for a college-age blonde girl.
RG3 will have some weapons to throw to with Josh Gordon reinstated into the league, and rookie Corey Coleman lining up next to him. The Browns also feature a second-year back in Duke Johnson, who quietly had a nice season on a bad team last year. The Browns’ offense will also feature deep-threat WR Travis Benjamin and security-blanket TE Gary Barnidge. At the least, this offense will be fun to watch. All eyes on RG3.
The defense has some young studs worth noting too. Rookie DEs Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib have made a ton of noise in camp and performed well in the Browns first preseason game.
The Browns won’t make the playoffs this year, but they may surprise people and will be a team headed in an entirely new direction. A lot has been said about the front office and their focus on analytics, a direction not many teams have stepped toward yet. They will be fun to watch and analyze, and I’m excited to see it play out.
To sum, I’m going to be pretty boring here. I just think the Steelers have too much talent on both sides of the ball to lose this division. I think Roethlisberger is the best QB out of any of these teams, and he will be the difference-maker in a division that has been so dominant in recent years. With that said, the NFL season is plagued with injuries and anything can happen. It’ll be a fun division to watch unfold.